An edited version of this letter was published in the February 27, 1999 New York Times in response to
Amy Harmon’s February 20 article “The Internet Has Spawned a Language of Its Own”
I must commend Ms. Harmon on her very balanced presentation of the linguistic debate in the February 20 article “The Internet has spawned a language of its own.” What distresses me, however, is the hyperbole in which the arguments of this debate have been wrapped. The “deliberate pace of language evolution” has not accelerated and contrary to Sven Birkerts’ belief, instantaneousness does not lead to “the impoverishment of language.”
Certain types of words have always come and gone quickly in a language. This is particularly true of slang and jargon terms. Cool, spiffy, groovy, excellent, phat, and def have fallen in and out of favor with varying generations of youths. No tool led to their appearance or disappearance—just prevailing tastes and fashions. CD, radar, VCR, TV, laser, LCD, ATM, DVD, and microwave were unknown less than a century ago (some little more than a decade ago). However, pronouns such as I, it, he, she, and we have remained unchanged for centuries and it is doubtful that e-mail will do much to drive them out of the language.
The use of “LOL” or “g/g” should be of no more concern than the use of abbreviations such as “6 rms riv vu” or “SWF” in newspaper want ads or personals. Does Birkerts decry the corporate use of memo pads, Post-It notes, “CC:”, and “Encl.” as the destroyers of the mother tongue as well?
As a student and teacher of language and linguistics, I find the attention this topic has received to be a little silly. Language, like its speakers, evolves. But other than certain cosmetic features, these changes are very slow. People change clothes everyday, but internally they remain largely unchanged. Our children do not grow up overnight; it only seems like it as we look back over a longer stretch of time.
Instead of bemoaning the loss of the semicolon, celebrate the increased use of the tool of writing. In a word, chill! The language will be fine. It’s a survivor.
Milton Alan Turner